He was gone again, out of my life.
After spending six months traveling around, performing songs I’d written about him and competing in various songwriting competitions, I was home for a few weeks to recuperate and participate in a charity fundraiser held at a church, on a bill with multiple artists.
Despite having a pretty solid set, I was feeling off my game that night and the show didn't go well as I’d wanted it to. Afterwards, I was downstairs alone, sitting on a bench outside a women’s restroom and trying to deep-breathe the feeling of failure out of my lungs. My phone rumbled in my pocket, and my home screen displayed the subject line of a new email:
NPR NEWSONG SONGWRITING CONTEST - FINAL WINNERS
It was the announcement of the three remaining finalists of that year’s contest, one I had received emails about every year. Each of these contests I would witness from the sidelines, a new set of 15 names and faces passing across my mind’s eye like a departing train. I opened the email without a second thought.
There, on my phone, was a picture of me. I gasped, and in that same moment I received a text from “Ohio Dad” (whose real name is Denis), who has served as an unofficial godparent to me, as well as my booking agent, for over three years. OD’s text read:
DID YOU CHECK YOUR EMAIL??!?
Me: Yes I did!! :D
Denis: Congratulations! But I’m sure you saw…how are you going to deal with the other part?
I wasn’t sure what he meant. I’d read the email, but then I realized I wasn’t seeing all of it; my phone had reformatted the message and I needed to zoom out to view the whole thing. I did, and as the other two remaining pictures we revealed, my vision tunneled in on the last one.
I had been awarded the greatest opportunity at that point in my career. But so had He.
I was to fly to New York City and perform at Lincoln Center on a beautiful grand piano. I would play my songs, with the top prize being a fully produced album, working with one of my favorite songwriters, Pat Sansone. Pat was also one of the judges. It was a BIG deal. If I got this, or so I thought, it was going to be my big break.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, Sharon showed up on my doorstep with a gorgeous royal purple lace dress, a sparkly statement necklace, and a pair of her own fancy black leather cowboy boots (that I called “the mafia boots”) that she lent me for my big show. My dad, while we discussed my hotel plans over the phone, offered to put me up for two nights in an incredibly nice Marriott just a block away from David Letterman’s theatre. He cashed in about a billion travel points for it. Thanks to them, with my armor and castle, I was ready to face the dragon.
I arrived in New York on the first night, having just enough time to check into the hotel and change for dinner. All of the finalists were asked to meet outside Lincoln Center to confirm the following day’s location, and to have a photo op on the stone steps nearby. It was November and colder than this Texan could comfortably stand, so I wore my blue puffy arctic weather jacket over my slinky brown cocktail dress. The resulting picture proudly displays my lifelong struggle with terrible fashion choices.
Through the entire walk to dinner, I could feel his eyes on me. He was getting such a rush from my ignoring him. He knew how easy it was to get inside my head, and could see it plastered across my face, like the brightly-lit billboards above us. At the restaurant, I took a seat at the farthest end of the table away from him. At some point, I was called down to the opposite end of the table to have a word with the contest’s coordinator. He was sitting right beside the coordinator, and I was asked to sit in the empty chair next to Him. When the dinner was officially over and the schmoozing had been schmoozed, I paid my ticket and dove back into my puffy blue coat to leave.
I waved goodbye and exited, but felt my gait slow, almost to a stop. What are you doing. I said to myself. You idiot. You’re doing exactly what he wants you to do. Without fail, he appeared next to me.
“Well, this is weird.” He said, with a sly smile.
Me: “Yes. It’s weird.”
“Where are you staying?”
“At the Marriott. You?”
“Oh, I’m just crashing at some friend of a friend’s place, in Brooklyn.”
“I was about to go to a comedy club-” He said and I perked up, as he knew I would. He continued: “The place I was going to check out, with some friends, is were Louis CK has been going every night this month, working on his new set.”
There were never any invitations to go with him, I had learned. None would be offered, and if I ever asked to go, that door would immediately be shut. Knowing that this was such an intriguing idea to me, he reveled in the silence I then gave back to him. I had nothing to say, no interest to show. He ate it up.
Following me back to the Marriott, past the shining bulbs of the Letterman sign and to the front lobby of my hotel, he expected everything. I silently keyed us to the bar floor, and he ordered me the cheapest scotch they had. When I removed my puffy coat, he put his hand on my bare back. I hated that it felt so warm.
With nothing but the sense that I had barely escaped a den of snakes, I eventually backed into the elevator and rode up to my room, alone.
The next day, I woke up with the shades parted wide. I took a long bath in a tub facing the enormous gray buildings around me. If the voyeurs could see me, I didn’t much care. I was Carrie Bradshaw for an hour.
When I arrived at Lincoln Center around noon, I went up to the artist’s floor. I was greeted by a large tray of sub sandwiches, of which I ate two, awkwardly snarfing the free food down as people shuffled around with cameras. I tried (and failed) to find a private corner to do my hair, and was called away to shoot a two minute interview that I've never seen since. In truth, I hope someone deleted it; otherwise everyone will be able see my eyes, darting around the room, looking for Him. He drifted in and out of the place over those four hours before the show, and not one word was spoken between us. This upset me; I was confused by the iciness after all the attention he’d shown me the night before. This is what happens to a corruptible mind; Starting out so strong, with the facade quickly melting away like butter on a hot stove. I wanted some kind of private word, but never got it. Now I was about to sing two songs about him, in front of him, in the middle of a packed room. Oh yeah, and for three judges that could change my life forever with one fateful decision.
The wait was finally over, and I took the stage to sing. The five o’clock sun was setting as I began; the white walls and floors of the center glowing with a dripping orange hue. As I opened my eyes to begin the second song, I saw Him again. Earlier, he had disappeared just after his set. But now he wasn’t alone. There was someone next to him, and I could tell, even by her obscured face and her shape shrouded in the shadow of the far corner, that I knew immediately who it must be.
I finished my songs and descended to applause, drowned out by the hot blood rushing to my reddening ears, as I saw him walk alone towards the elevator. I assumed he was collecting his things to go. I caught the next flight up, and found him in an empty green room. He had no idea I had followed him. Seeing his face now, I did the only thing my primate brain could think to do: after years of torture and mental anguish, time and time again casting my feelings aside for his own sick pleasure, and this final, malicious blow to my own peace of mind. I pushed him. Hard. He yelled, What are you doing??, and I pushed him again, with each shove getting weaker and weaker as the message formed around my lips.
I screamed out at him with an angry fire, lit inside me like a dusty fuse coming to life. I remember the stance I took as I stared at him down with cold, dead eyes.
Someday, you’ll know all the things He did to me and all the nothing that he made me feel about myself. Someday, I'll tell you everything I said to him: that he ruined my life. That he wore me down, crumbling, and as soon as I could build back up, he came back to destroy me again. I would tell you that I grabbed his shirt collar, with my white knuckles and my hands shaking, and made him stare into the face of someone he’d broken.
All you have to know is that in that moment, I felt good about myself for the first time in a while. And it had nothing to do with him. He only began to understand, if just a little, that the price for the pain he had caused me was that it had also made me strong.
I was downstairs again when they announced that I had been named a finalist, and would be competing for the top prize. After everything that had happened, I was definitely ready to start my new life.
I climbed the stage of Lincoln Center one final time, and took a seat at the Steinway, in front of a hall of silent faces. Pat Sansone was behind a desk, watching.
I sang my final song: It was the very first one I wrote after it all came crashing down, when it still felt scary, because it was all so new. The room lifted, sank, and melted into nothing as I sang to Him and his ignorant girlfriend.
People were elated. Everyone, including the other contestants, crowded around me as the judging commenced. They hugged me, congratulated me. But in the end, the judges wrote another name down, and to a hushed reaction, it was someone else they chose. I lost.
I write all this to tell you about just one single instance of when I thought my life would change, much like this song placement that may or may not happen in the coming weeks. In the end, I changed for an entirely different reason. Over the 15 years that I’ve been pursuing my dreams in music, there have been a handful of times, much like the NPR Songwriting Contest, when I thought my ship had finally come in, and all of my waiting was finally over. They've all passed, however, and I took what I could gain from the experience to float with me down the river. I’m only more thankful for these stories now that I have a reason to work through them, by telling them to you.
When it was all over, I walked to my hotel, my weary back beginning to twinge and crackle; weakened from years of piano tuning and done in by the stress from that day. But even as the inviting, warm lobby came into view, I walked past the sliding doors and continued down the avenue.
I walked for a mile, maybe two.
I came across an old, green fluorescent-lit ice cream shop on an dark, empty street. The tight squeeze of the storefront was filled with all walks of life, from preteens in cheerleading outfits, to middle aged Chinese women, to tall, slender men speaking in thick Jamaican accents. I found my way to the counter and ordered my childhood favorite: strawberry ice cream with TONS of multicolored sprinkles.
I ate the whole thing as I walked back to my hotel. In the final stretch, the boost of energy and sugar from the ice cream wore off, and I hobbled into the lobby of the Marriott like a crime scene victim, closed fists bolstering the small of my back, attempting to keep me upright.
Finally flopping onto my bed, I turned up the heat on the thermostat and slept happily alone in a beautiful glass building overlooking New York City.
I woke up the same person I was the day before.